The Future of the Land Discussion


DR. BREUNIG: What, if any, changes do we need to make culturally in order to address some of the land questions that we raised yesterday?

            DR. JACKSON: I think we need to talk about food, and about mobility and connectedness. In both cases, we need to make a very clear, accurate accounting of the real costs of how we eat, and the real costs of mobility and connectivity that we prize so greatly.

            Yesterday I talked about some of the real costs of food. Many of them are invisible. You don't see them because they're in another region. We just found out that some chocolate is produced by child slave labor in the Congo. We certainly don't see the pollution in Iowa, and I don't see the pollution that's caused by growing cotton in Texas.

            But we need to begin to assume these costs, to take a clear-eyed look at these things and refuse to shove them under the table. I have two recommendations, and I put them in sort of a rude way. The first is, find yourself a farmer; and the second, learn to cook.

            Most of you in your generation know how to cook, but my encounters with students and also even a lot of people in my generation tell me that people don't cook anymore. It's very common to eat out at least once a day and have prepared food the rest of the time. And when you do that, you are really cut off from the source of sustenance in a very profound way.

            But there are movements to revitalize farmers' markets, as Karen Enyedy is involved in, and that's happening all over the country. There are efforts all over the country to create stronger connections between local food production and people's eating, whether it's in a fancy restaurant like L'Etoile in Madison, Wisconsin, or Chez Panisse in San Francisco, California.

            Those fancy restaurants have led the way to more affordable efforts. There is a wonderful, inexpensive restaurant in Waterloo that we go to regularly called Rudy's Taco. And it is not a chichi place. The prices are quite reasonable. He serves organic chicken, locally produced beef, organic pork. All of the beans, rice, and tortillas are locally produced, either right in Iowa or in Wisconsin. The tomatoes are local and pesticide-free all year round. He buys them from a greenhouse nearby. The lettuce in season is also local.

            People are recognizing the values of connecting with local farmers and becoming more fully part of the local ecosystem. And that, of course, means that the consumer begins to have leverage. One can say, "Well, did you have to spray your sweet corn this year?" And when they say no, you say, "Well, that's great. I can always cut out a few worms."

            The corollary to eating locally is that there is less processing. The food processors that used to be all over—creameries, canneries, and the like—are gone. In order to really begin to eat more locally, we're also going to have to invest in local food processing.

            Maybe we can do things different than we did before. Maybe we don't need to have Mom at home full-time, cooking meat, potatoes and gravy. Maybe there are other ways to do this that are a little bit more attuned to our current structure of living.

            When my husband tells audiences that they should find themselves a farmer, I like to add, you should also find yourself a wife, because eating locally means preparing vegetables and cutting things up and spending time with your food. But this is a very valuable and rewarding activity, and it can keep us out of trouble if we spend time doing basic things.

            I think we also need to calculate the real cost of mobility and connectivity. When we talk about the economy growing and all the wonderful things we can do on the Internet, we rarely acknowledge that all of this is on the back of physical infrastructure.

            Infrastructure is a real cost of doing business, and in my home state that has meant several highway projects that were planned through prairies and wetlands. Conservationists and nature lovers had to battle the "Department of Single Occupancy Vehicles" to save these places and the rare plants and animals that live there.

            I prefer this name because if a state Department of Transportation were really serious, it would be planning for buses and trains and bikes, not just cars and trucks. A big cultural change in our future is to change the way we think about the actual costs of mobility.

            And that also goes for connectivity—cell phones and Internet access. These have infrastructure costs that are real. There are right of ways that have to be dug, there are cables that have to be buried, and it's getting crowded out there. There are places where people are having to make some sacrifices in the area of cell phone towers. Communities are finding themselves staring up at a big ugly cell phone tower in their neighborhood.

            And so I think that, increasingly, communities are going to have to assess these costs of technology and mobility, along with their benefits and ask whether this is what they really, really want for now and also for their children. Because that infrastructure lasts a long time.

            DR. BREUNIG: Bill, what are the key cultural changes that you think are required in order to forge a new relationship, or perhaps a better relationship, or a different relationship? Or do we need to make any changes at all with respect to our relationship to the land?

            DR. JORDAN: Well, that's obviously a big question. But I think it's interesting to consider it from the perspective provided by the work of ecological restoration.

            I pointed out that environmentalism has been very slow to adopt restoration even as a strategy for conservation. But we are doing that now, and I think that bodes extremely well for the future. I think, however, that to really get over the watershed here into a world where we can really think of ourselves as citizens of the land community, we are going to have to come to terms with some things that half a century ago our environmental thinkers consistently overlooked. Leopold wrote that we must learn to think of ourselves as "plain members" of the land community, and I think that's a good idea insofar as Leopold was trying to emphasize that we are, in fact, members of a land community.

            But I think there's a danger in placing too much emphasis on the plainness of our citizenship. For one thing, we aren't really all that plain. For better or worse, we are peculiar—or at least strikingly distinctive—in certain ways. And for another, all species are like that. They are all peculiar and distinctive—different from all other species.

            Those differences matter. And they can be troubling—think, for example, of the "difference" between a predator and its prey, and the "political" implications of that.

            We talk about diversity, and about celebrating differences. But we usually celebrate differences only when they don't really make a difference—when they don't hurt, as we do when we paper over the difference between ourselves and other species, telling ourselves that we are just "plain citizens" like all the rest.

            I think that in celebrating difference and change, and the prospect of communion, as a writer like Thomas Berry does, we overlook the difficulty and the pain involved in this. And I would say that this is the great challenge for us today—to face up to the fact that communion and beauty and meaning are not easy and natural, but actually require hard cultural and emotional work.

            From what little I know of the arts, theology, and anthropology—the disciplines of relationship—there's no reason to think that these things are easy or that they ever have been. And I think a fundamental assumption of our culture way back, hundreds of years, at least to the Enlightenment, is that it is easy.

            There's an amazing account of this in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, in which the savage comes to the world controller and says he has been reading an old copy of Shakespeare, and that it's amazing, wonderful stuff. This is beautiful—tragic and beautiful. Why don't you do this stuff? he asks. And the world controller says, pityingly, You don't understand. That's beauty. We don't have beauty. We have happiness.

            Of course, what Huxley meant by "happiness" in the context of Brave New World was a horrible life of emotional convenience, of sexual promiscuity, of shooting up on drugs, of getting everything you wanted.

            This idea—that beauty and happiness are antithetical, and that beauty is a higher value than happiness, and is gained at the expense of happiness, I think is something that we're going to want to explore. If we don't, then I think we may not get—or deserve—beauty, or community, but something more like the world controller's "happiness." The kind of community and beauty we're going to have is going to be as different from what those words used to mean—to Shakespeare, to the Australian Aborigines, and the pre-modern people generally—as "cool" in the suburbs is different from "cool" where it begins, in the ghetto, where it was invented, out of a kind of grim necessity, to make your way in the world.