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Wendell Berry, Wes Jackson call for liberal arts to sow seeds of truth and disruption

Marc Lefkowitz  |  09/11/13 @ 2:00pm

David Orr, Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson held forth on the meaning of life as agrarians at Oberlin College 2013 Convocation. For the rest of us urbanites, they shared ideas about protest, affection in education and staying open to possibility.

The three tremors<br />(l-r seated) David Orr, Wes Jackson and Wendell Berry deliver a prickly hot Convocation at Oberlin College.

Berry lives on a farm in Kentucky, is a restless author and raconteur, spinning yarns about his friendship with Orr and Jackson, a celebrated geneticist and founder of The Land Institute, which has preserved and produces food from a 100-acre prairie in Kansas that pre-dates colonists and the Dust Bowl.

Their work explores the tension between a modish culture and true “sustainability.” In their 80s, they still bristle at hypocrisy, tempered by their smooth, Southern manner.

Dr. Orr wondered how you sell an agrarian vision of living closer to the land in a rapidly urbanizing world? Jackson’s response—that he trusts it’s a good question because there is no easy answer—leans on a well-honed rhetorical philosophy.

“It’s a question to be worried about,” he said, adding, “We didn’t evolve with a gallon of gasoline, and an intuition of what a gallon of gas can do, let alone a barrel.”

Jackson the scientist attempted to frame it as an equation. Convert all of the food we eat to Ethanol and it would fill a 2.2 gallon barrel per week for each of us.

To which Berry added that he doesn’t understand the inefficiencies in modern agriculture, or in growing only corn and soybean.

“There’s a whole lot of waste in those fields laying vacant months and months and no livestock to clear them. Instead of capitalizing on the principles of a real economy, we’re not producing what we can.”

Living on a farm is not for everyone (from a land and resource standpoint, it’s a mathematical impossibility) but what about an agrarian view applied to the big issues of the day such as climate change?

Jackson equates climate change to slavery and the American Civil War. The case leading up to the Civil War was framed by the hypocrisy of “we’re the land of the free and the land of the slave,” he said.

“Now we have the high morality to control the ecosphere. So it’s legal to run pipelines and do fracking. We’re faced with the same problem, and don’t have the same conversation. This time we can’t have bloodshed. There is no ‘us’ or ‘them.’ We have our 401(k) in it.”

He thinks we need to stop dilly dallying and “put a cap on the wellhead and then see how good our technology can be.”

Both Jackson and Berry spent a long, hot hour in a critique of the technological crutch that America seems to be building itself to deal with the high moral question of our role in climate change.

“Tech fundamentalism is the worst kind,” Jackson said. “It comes with the milk. The conversation has to get more real.”

Orr turned the conversation to how a liberal arts education can grapple with climate change. Berry answered that the economy should be elevated to a liberal art.

“I would like to go back to thinking shoemaking, cooking and carpentry are the arts,” Berry said. “I don’t accept that we live in a society that accepts poetry, music and painting and mediocre food or crafts.”

They made a convincing case for buying organic food. Rainforests cleared for and fossil fuels used in agriculture make it the second largest emitter of carbon dioxide, Jackson said, and yet, land-use and conventional agricultural methods are probably the most ignored climate issue.

The evening was rounded out by Orr asking Berry and Jackson to give advice for college students. Jackson’s answer was pithy.

“Run for office, get defeated and go home. And if you get elected, introduce legislation that has no chance to get passed,” he said, referring to the work he and Berry did to try to reform the Farm Bill. “Chances are, that’s the one that can make the most difference.”

_ _ _ _

How do we measure happiness as a country? Columbia University Earth Institute’s Happiness Index latest report is more of a 360-degree view on a country’s progress. Wellness is included with GDP as a metric, for example. It’s why the U.S. falls into the No. 17 spot ten notches less happy than Canada.

Rumi Shammin a Professor in the Environmental Studies program at Oberlin College produced for Cleveland a new framework for measuring wealth in economic, social and environmental terms. He noted last night that a Genuine Progress Indicator is being adopted by the states of Oregon and Maryland, and countries like Bhutan.

“It’s not a measure of the means which we believe is the ends but of achieving something of great value,” he explains. Shammin says that GPI is a reason Bhutan scores near the top of the Happiness Index for countries. “They’re measuring how many people have access to healthy food, water and shelter.”

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