Yves here. As you’ll see, authors Wes Jackson and Robert Jensen justify their use of apocalypse to describe the environmental disaster we have brought upon ourselves by using the Bible to identify typologies of political and cultural power.
By KLG, who has held research and academic positions in three US medical schools since 1995 and is currently Professor of Biochemistry and Associate Dean. He has performed and directed research on protein structure, function, and evolution; cell adhesion and motility; the mechanism of viral fusion proteins; and assembly of the vertebrate heart. He has served on national review panels of both public and private funding agencies, and his research and that of his students has been funded by the American Heart Association, American Cancer Society, and National Institutes of Health.
Wes Jackson (b. 1936) has been on the right side of history for a long time. A plant geneticist, he gave up a life in academia to found The Land Institute in 1976 on the Smoky Hill River in Salina, Kansas. Since then, he and his colleagues at “The Land” have been working:
for a future in which humans flourish as members of a thriving ecosphere. Achieving this future requires reconciling the human economy with nature’s economy, and we believe focusing on food and how we produce it is a transformative first step. In this future, agriculture regenerates the soil, water, and air upon which all life depends. The agriculture we seek equitably provides for human needs within ecological limits over the long term and is stewarded by communities of people living in just relationship with each other and the ecosphere.
Jackson has written several books that have made an impact on my thinking about our place in the world (1), and his work dovetails neatly with that of the farmer, poet, creator of Port William (2), and moral philosopher (whether he admits this or not) Wendell Berry, who is his friend and colleague. Along with Robert Jensen, professor emeritus in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas, Jackson has written a book that describes where we are and how we got here: An Inconvenient Apocalypse: Environmental Collapse, Climate Crisis, and the Fate of Humanity (2022). I have been reading this literature for a long time, at least since The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture by Wendell Berry was published in 1977. Much of this work is very good, but in my experience little of it comes from the perspective of a scientist and agricultural revolutionary who appreciates so fully the folly that is industrial agriculture. Like American democracy, industrial agriculture is a category mistake. If we are to have a human future, this is one mistake among many others that must be rectified.
An Inconvenient Apocalypse is a bold statement, but Jackson & Jensen (J&J) present “a reasonable general summary of the challenges we face in achieving social justice and ecological sustainability.” And the problems we face are the results of “multiple cascading crises” instead of a series of discrete problems that can be solved in isolation, including:
- The decline of key natural resources and an emerging global resource crisis, especially in water
- The collapse of ecosystems that support (all) life on Earth and the mass extinction of species
- Human population growth and demand beyond the carrying capacity the Earth
- Anthropogenic global warming, sea level rise, climate instability
- Universal pollution of the Earth, especially with “forever” chemicals
- Rising food insecurity and failing nutritional quality
- Nuclear arms and other weapons of mass destruction
- Pandemics of new and untreatable disease
- The advent of powerful, uncontrolled new technologies
- National and global failure to understand and act preventively on these risks
There is nothing surprising in this list, and the implications of each are clear. If we are to deal with these problems, we must transcend the “growth economy” that seems essential but is just another fateful category mistake in a finite world with a finite ecosphere. This is nothing new. Herman Daly (1938-2022) wrote about this for more than 50 years but was ignored by the establishment for virtually all of that time (3). His Beyond Growth: The Economics of Sustainable Development (1996) and For the Common Good written with John B. Cobb, Jr. are indispensable for an understanding of “sustainability,” what it is and more importantly what it is not (virtue signaling, for example).
But who is this “we” and what is the “apocalypse” and what is the nature of the thing to be saved. “We” is all of us, the entire human population, every human being who has ever lived. J&J quote Utah Phillips: “The Earth is not dying, it is being killed, and those who are killing it have names and addresses.”
Yes, they do, and most of those addresses are in the so-called “West” or “Global North.” The apocalypse is inconvenient (4) for them, – us, those who are reading this, primarily because we have a difficult time with answering the four hard questions raised by J&J: size, scale, scope, and speed. In this section of the book, Jackson & Jensen “encourage people to climb out of the Overton Window and look around.” A more useful strategy to understand the coming apocalypse is scarcely imaginable, and it could be (i.e., devoutly to be wished) that more people are doing just that because questions of size, scale, scope, and speed are requiring them to do so, if their goal is to understand why we find ourselves currently traveling in this handbasket.
Size: What is the size of the human economy relative to the magnitude of the ecosphere? Too large by any reasonable measure. But the general view of our reigning political culture is that carrying capacity applies only to non-human animals in their various ecosystems. No. Although it is passing strange, the PMC (and here I am speaking of the PMC of the Classical Liberal Uniparty that comprises American politics) largely agrees with Julian Simon, who wrote The Ultimate Resource (1981, 1996). In both editions he conflates the fact that any given resource is infinitely divisible with the notion that resources are therefore infinite, practically speaking. Plus, Simon completely fails to recognize that the concept of carrying capacity applies to humans just as it does to any other animal in the ecosphere (5). He is not alone.
The economy has become an outsized growth within the ecosphere in industrial production, agriculture, and public health, only because fossil fuels in the form of Fossil Capital have allowed us to mistake basic biological needs (food, water, shelter) and social needs (art, science, humanities, sports, and other enrichment activities that require sustained attention) for luxuries such as private air travel and the 2+ cars per family that we really do not need but are required because we have destroyed any and all alternatives. For example, 100 years ago my smallish Southern hometown had streetcars that regularly traversed the primary east-west and north-south arteries in the well-designed grid with park squares from the 18th century that made up our streets. The earliest “suburb” on the marsh was less than a half-mile from trolley lines in each direction. This devolution has led to the required, thoroughgoing techno-optimism that could be the biggest impediment to change. All sides are waiting for the breakthrough that will allow us to continue on our present course with marginal changes such as the false dawn of electric cars. However, following J&J and Herman Daly, the only way forward to a human future comes with markedly decreased material throughput and energy consumption in our political economy. Neither our sources of energy and material nor our sinks for waste are unbounded.
Scale: What is the appropriate scale of the human community? While evolutionary psychology consists mostly of just-so stories, convincing research by the anthropologist Robin Dunbar has demonstrated that the size of a truly human community has definite limits: Social group: 150; Close friends: 50; Very close friends: 15; Inner circle: 5. This seems exactly right, despite the number of Facebook “friends” in the world. Port William (2) and Yoknapatawpha of William Faulkner both fit into this schema, for example, though as exemplars of a different quality.
Although there can be many routes to reaching this social and community stability, “No matter how difficult the transition may be, in the not-too-distant future we will have to live in far smaller and more flexible social organization than today’s nation states and cities.”
While this is true, the problem is not necessarily nation states, if they are organized regionally and rationally, and definitely not cities. Eugene Odum showed that cities can be the urban repository of civilization, but only when the exist within their countryside and not something apart. Barbara Kingsolver made the similar point throughout Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, and Raymond Williams addressed this from his different perspective in The Country and the City. The one essential character of the economy is that it must not be larger than it needs to be. The second is that an economy must be grounded in space and time. The global economy is only another floating signifier that leads to magical thinking. A local economy is best, always. People have more control over their livelihoods, and the “supply chain problem” with which we have become intimately familiar during the past three years becomes much less problematic. Simple but impossible under the present neoliberal dispensation. For now, but it is just over the horizon if a human future for our grandchildren is possible.
Scope: Our magical thinking about the relationship of the growth economy and the ecosphere in a finite world allows us to believe that an economics of endless growth will not end badly. This bleak future is “not pleasant…to ponder and prepare for, so it’s not surprising that many people, especially those in societies where affluence is based on dense energy and advanced technology, clamor for solutions to be able to keep the energy flowing and the technology advancing.” Thus, our civil religion tainted by technological fundamentalism becomes necessary [(5); the term is originally from David W. Orr]. Regarding fundamentalism of any kind – scientistic instead of scientific, religious, political, economic – I follow Janisse Ray who wrote that “fundamentalism thrives only where imagination has died” (paraphrase from Wild Card Quilt: Taking a Chance on Home, 2004). Along with fundamentalism comes the naked hubris leading us to believe that humans understand complex questions definitively. No, we never do.
The technocrats who gave us the Green Revolution “believed that managing this industrial style of agriculture within an increasingly globalized economic system was withing the scope of their confidence.” But the Green Revolution was possible only through the industrialization of agriculture, in India and beyond. The immediate consequences were indeed remarkably green on the surface, and Norman Borlaug (1914-2009) was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970. The consequences have been devastating, however, as commoditization of markets has taken over agriculture and eating ceased being an agricultural act (6). Technological fundamentalists act as if codified human knowledge is adequate to run the world. No, not necessarily.
Speed. The pace of our economy is due to cheap oil that was never really cheap. The costs were hidden and then delayed and later denied. For a long time, the threats were invisible if not exactly unknown. But this is where one might part ways with J&J, significantly if only briefly: “We should have thought about this 10,000 years ago we we tinkered with ecosystems in early agriculture and started the long process of exhausting soil carbon, but we didn’t.” In my view this is an extension of the human “we” too far, in both time and meaning. Although local ecosystem damage has been a constant during the long life of Homo sapiens and our ancestors going back a million years, “we” did not know of the carbon cycle and the water cycle 10,000 years ago.
Early in the book J&J refer to Richard Lewontin and Richard Levins (The Dialectical Biologist: “Things are similar: this makes science possible. Things are different; this makes science necessary”). One of the most convincing arguments Friedrich Engels made in his unfinished Dialectics of Nature (pdf) is that an increase in quantity leads inexorably to a difference in quality. The quantitative-to-qualitative jump in agriculture, with its subsequent deleterious scientific, cultural, social, and economic effects, was due primarily to the industrialization of what is fundamentally a biological process. Industrial agriculture had antecedents, but it was consolidated in the US after World War II and reached its point of no return 50 years ago when Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz told farmers to “get big or get out” and “plant commodity crops from fencerow to fencerow” while they were at it. All of this was “science-based,” of course, the marketed intellectual product of Land Grant universities across the US. This is covered well in Fatal Harvest: The Tragedy of Industrial Agriculture (2002), which compares the physical, social, and biological moonscapes that are industrial “farms” with sustainable farming, which is more productive by any number of valid metrics (7).
Regarding the four questions of size, scale, scope, and speed, “the modern economy created by the Industrial and Digital Revolutions is not running out of time but rather has run out of time to correct the course.” This is not the message a techno-optimist-technological-fundamentalist member of the professional-managerial class wants to hear.
But “Hard questions lead to painful conclusions. We are starting too late to prevent billions of people from enduring incalculable suffering. We are starting too late to prevent the permanent loss of millions of species and huge tracts of habitat. We are starting too late, but we have to start. How should be understand the work? Honestly…we start by telling ourselves and each other the truth.” And the truth is, despite Lawrence Summers and his many acolytes and associates, the staggering costs of economic growth are with us, not because we placed sensible limits on growth, but because we failed to do so.
But how have we dealt with this truth? Not particularly well, obviously. And this can be explained at the secular level by following the religious traditions of the Bible in identifying three different relationships among systems of political and cultural power, the royal, prophetic, and apocalyptic. The theologian Walter Brueggemann identifies the royal consciousness with the period when Solomon strayed from the wisdom of Moses, and this applies to us: “Affluence, oppressive social policy, and a static religion transformed a God of liberation into one of empire…with a corrosive consciousness (that) develops…in top leaders (and) throughout the privileged sectors (and) filtering down to a wider public that accepts a power system and its cruelty.”
Does this really apply to the so-called American democracy in the 21st century? Well, we are a “nation that has been at war – either in shooting wars or cold war for domination – for our entire lives (since World War II; we are participating in both, one by proxy, in early 2023). Economic inequality and the resulting suffering have deepened in our lifetimes, facilitated by a government so captured by concentrated wealth that attempts to renew the moderate New Deal-era social contract seem radical to many.” And we are left with a culture “competent to implement almost anything (relating to government power) and to imagine almost nothing.” Just another example of fundamentalism thriving in the absence of imagination, “where both the Right and the so-called Left either endorses or capitulates to royal power.” Yes, “royal tradition” applies to us.
Prophets do not predict the future. Instead, they remind the people of the best of tradition and point out how we have strayed. Claiming the prophetic tradition requires only honesty and courage and a willingness to confront the abuses of power and to acknowledge our own complicity. The key here is “our own complicity.” In the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel:
Above all, the prophets remind us of the moral state of a people: Few are guilty, but all are responsible. If we admit that the individual is in some measure conditioned or affected by the spirit of society, and individual’s crime discloses society’s corruption.
Apocalypse in the present context does not mean “lakes of fire, rivers of blood, or bodies raptured up to heaven.” But it does require that we change our consciousness when hope for meaningful change within the existing political culture and economy is no longer productive and we must deal with our problems dramatically different ways: “Invoking the apocalyptic recognizes the end of something…not about rapture but a rupture severe enough to change the nature of the whole game.” It is way past time to climb out of that Overton Window and look around with eyes that see. In the words of James Baldwin, “Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” Thus, the summation from J&J:
To speak from the royal tradition is to tell only those truths that the system can bear. To speak prophetically is to tell as much of the truth as one can bear and then a little more. To speak apocalyptically is to tell as much of the truth as one can bear, then a little more, and then all the rest of the truth, whether one can bear it or not.
Finally, two conclusions and a minor quibble. The Crisis of Consumption that is built into our inconvenient apocalypse – which is surely coming – is the primary obstacle preventing rational responses to the multiple overlapping, cascading crises we face. No one wants to pay if that means less play. There are two ways to meet our desires: increase consumption or be happy with less. The first is not possible in a full world that has been pushed past its limits. The second will require a complete reset. But it is doable and if we are intentional, it will be all the better.
And this could be done if we attend to what J&J call Ecospheric Grace. The Earth and its ecosphere have provided a home for all of Creation. We have not taken good care of our home. If we recognize this, from whatever perspective makes us comfortable – secular, religious, spiritual – the reset will be less onerous if no less difficult. And the quibble, “justice” and “sustainable” as concepts are not in need of modifiers, “social” and “ecological” included.
(2) Port William, Kentucky, is the imagined but very real community (Mid-19th century – present) that is the subject and object of Wendell Berry’s fiction. The Port William community is firmly rooted in place and its people form a membership that extends back through the remembered past and into the future. In that it is an ideal human community, one that has become increasingly rare if not impossible in our modern neoliberal world.
(3) Herman Daly’s work was actually recognized and then promptly dismissed by one Lawrence Summers of the World Bank, who maintained that placing the “economy” within the ecosphere was “not the way to think about it.” No surprise there from the John Bates Clark Medal awardee of 1993. John Bates Clark was a teacher of Thorstein Veblenat Carleton College in the 1870s. This little fact makes me smile.
(4) Inconvenient for the PMC of the Global North, or so they believe in their eternal but blinkered, optimism. Devastating at the same time for much of the Global South.
(5) From the publisher: “In Simon’s view, the key factor in natural and world economic growth is our capacity for the creation of new ideas and contributions to knowledge. The more people alive who can be trained to help solve the problems that confront us, the faster we can remove obstacles, and the greater the economic inheritance we shall bequeath to our descendants. In conjunction with the size of the educated population, the key constraint on human progress is the nature of the economic-political system: talented people need economic freedom and security to bring their talents to fruition.” This is utter neoliberal nonsense, an excrescence of the technological fundamentalism that will (not) save us.
(6) But see here (pdf) from an unsurprising source.
(7) Yes, this is an argument that continues due to the number of human beings inhabiting the Earth. And we are a wasteful and incorrigible species. But industrial “farms” of thousands of acres that require half-million dollar combines, Haber-Bosch produced nitrogen, and mined fossil water to grow food to feed animals while producing the ingredients (mostly sugars and vegetable oils) of the food-like substances marketed in the modern American supermarket cannot survive the coming apocalypse. Except for essential exotics (e.g., spices, chocolate, coffee, and bananas) from farm to table should be a distance of no more than a few hundred miles, maximum. It is remarkable that Olive growers in South Georgia produce olive oil that is very good, if expensive. The “national” supply chain also looked fairly strained in the egg and dairy sections of my local supermarket this past weekend